Smarter data: Using tech to guide charities

Maria English is the social-data whizz helping fledgling enterprise Impact Lab make the most of New Zealanders’ immense charitable giving. By Diana Dekker.

‘Thanks for the tissue,” says Maria English at the door of her Wellington office, by way of goodbye. English is the chief executive of Impact Lab, founded two years ago to help the country’s givers and spreaders of almost $4 billion of charitable funds annually.

Earlier, there were tears. Charity, of course, is emotionally given and driven. Isn’t it? Somewhat so for English, but definitely not in the case of Impact Lab. At the company, empathy comes with a robust, factual foundation for what English categorises as a purpose-driven enterprise aimed at enhancing individual lives by making the charitable dollar go further.

The tissued-away tears were very real, but English’s skills are in the field of hard social data and Impact Lab’s aim is to guide funding and charitable organisations to factor in that data.

English reports that Impact Lab has so far estimated the effect of $115 million of investment in 90 charitable programmes making a difference to the lives of 380,000 New Zealanders. It’s a modest but targeted chunk of the billions New Zealanders give each year. Philanthropy in this country is substantial in per capita terms, compared with most of the rest of the world.

New Zealand is third in the list of most generous countries, based on data captured in the Gallup World Poll for the period 2013-2017. It is behind only Indonesia and Australia and ahead of the United States, which comes in fourth, and the United Kingdom, sixth.

“Even a small charity can make a big difference,” says English. Both funders and charities have reported that Impact Lab’s tools enable them to increase the usefulness of donated money. “If a charity wants to understand if their service is having an impact and where that impact lies, and how to focus and evolve those services, then we can help them to do it, with the ultimate goal of being a greater positive change in people’s lives.” She’s aware “many people are intimidated by data and information, but when they understand that the data is connected to human stories, it can be really empowering. What I love is becoming a tool in the toolbox of people doing this work.”

Unlocking potential

English, one of six children of former prime minister and Impact Lab co-founder Sir Bill English and his GP wife, Lady Mary, embodies a heart-and-head approach. The catalyst for her tears was an experience at Stanford University in California where English, who has just been named Hi-Tech Young Achiever at the prestigious 2021 NZ Hi-Tech Awards,studied for a master’s degree in business administration. Her study focused on the use of technology for social change, the building of data, and technology-based tools for people making investment decisions for communities.

Over two years, as part of a spin-off programme, she had regular contact with an autistic boy who was eight when she met him. The experience was pivotal in her choice of charity-based work, she says.It’s that memory that prompts tears:”It was a programme about play, but you needed to turn up open-minded and leave your expectations at the door. He helped me understand, this little boy. There was something magic about him, he had an amazing imaginative world, but it was hard to bring people into it.It struck me you have to look differently and understand problems people have, not what seem like limitations.

“I worked with a neuroscientist to build an online platform to connect people with learning difficulties with mentors and tutors who could help. One in four children in the US have learning difficulties and it’s probably similar here.” Some kids get support but others don’t. “There’s a whole ecosystem of community support out there, but how do families find it? That’s the opportunity. Let’s find out what works.

“A common thread at the charities we work with is seeing unrealised potential and having the tools to unlock it. It can be anything from supporting a young mother to give a child a start in life or, at the other end, for an elderly person disconnected from family and living on their own, building a human connection to break down their isolation.”

Her time at Stanford also saw her take part in a project at San Quentin State Prison where small groups of graduate and undergraduate students were tasked with “unlocking innovation”.

“I ended up designing an app, a version of a social-messaging app. I saw that the programme at San Quentin took a long time to set up and build and then evolve into a final programme with good results. It took years to get working, to help men get jobs and get over barriers.

“That experience made me realise if you care about a community and about making a difference, you have to commit for a long time. There is no quick fix and I realised I needed to commit to somewhere, commit to a country, and I wanted to do it at home. That’s what I do now. After Stanford, I had a feeling I wanted to come home.”

Educational outcomes

New Zealand, she found, had far more comprehensive social data than the US. Here, she was able to link publicly available and government-integrated data with evidence-based data from charities. A primary tool was the Integrated Data Infrastructure, which was compiled in 2011 from government agencies and with microdata about people and households and their experiences of education, income, benefits, migration, justice and health.

“You can link across government social services and unwrap millions of stories of individuals, which are relevant to charitable services. For example, you might have a cohort of children who have high-school qualifications, some employed and some not. What happened to the ones without? To understand what happens to people, you can look at educational outcomes and their histories, then see what charities are doing and work with them to make changes in people’s lives.”

English says 85 per cent of New Zealanders use half of government services and 15 per cent use the other half. “The majority of people use some services, but the 15 per cent of vulnerable New Zealanders are much more intensive users and live extremely diverse and complex lives. For the 85 per cent, for example, the education system works well. For the 15 per cent, the challenge is how to meet the need. We find we need a whole lot of different solutions.”

She cites Be. Lab Employment, the employment programme run by accessibility services organisation Be. Lab.

“Be. Lab Employment builds a relationship of trust over a long period with the person, working with them for change and responding to people’s problems.” Impact Lab’s research and collected data reported to Be. Lab that every dollar invested in its employment programme delivered $4.80 of social return on investment – that’s the measurable good that is generated for every dollar.

A good argument

The strong sense of community English displays is very much home-grown. Home was first at Dipton, where she was born and lived with her parents and five brothers, now aged from 21 to 32. She is 29. Her siblings are, she says, “all very different”. Eldest Luke works with her at Impact Lab, Tom is a psychiatrist, Rory is in sales, Bartholomew works in social services and Xavier in a property agency. Growing up the third child in the family was “great fun”, she says. “There was never a dull moment. When you get that many boys together, there’s a momentum to things. I just sort of went with it. I had to be interested in sport. The boys all play a lot of sport, even now.

Her father says, only partly in jest, that it was having five brothers that forced his only daughter to develop debating skills from a young age. Whatever the impetus, she spent three years in the New Zealand secondary schools debating team, which, in 2008, came second in the world championships and, the following year, won the title. Her brothers likely took no credit for honing her skills at developing an argument. “They all had a good sense of humour and being part of a big family was very important. There were a lot of people in my life, different people and different perspectives, which was wonderful.

“We were brought up together as a bit of a collective overriding everything else. My mother is Samoan and Italian, and in both cultures, the idea of a collective and everyone having a place in it is very important. Everyone belongs. Life was happy and chaotic.

“My main memory of Dad in politics was that he came home with amazing stories of people he’d met and places he’d been, so it was not only family but a sense of community. It gave me a wider sense of that.”

With her family in Wellington for her father’s political career, English went to Sacred Heart Cathedral School, a Catholicprimary school in Thorndon. For high school, she attended Samuel Marsden Collegiate School where she was both head girl and dux in 2009. She planned to study law at the University of Otago but, at 18, was awarded a Girdlers’ Scholarship to the University of Cambridge, “an amazing opportunity”. She abandoned New Zealand law – and a holiday job on a dairy farm – for an arts degree in politics, psychology and sociology at Cambridge, where she remains the only first-year student to make the university’s top debating team.

From Cambridge, she took a summer job teaching English as a second language to university students in Spain. “I found I didn’t have enough patience for it, although I knew I cared about particularly young people.”

She graduated and moved to Sydney to work for a public-sector advisory group linking government, corporate, philanthropic and indigenous organisations to benefit indigenous people. This took her to Kununurra in Western Australia where she worked for indigenous social-service provider the Wunan Foundation on a project focused on supporting governance of remote communities. There she “realised good data was essential for good outcomes and there was little of it to help people in communication with funders, in this case in Canberra, where they were trying to support and understand the community”.

Measuring charitable aid

Her work in Australia in relevant technology resulted in her applying for the MBA programme at Stanford “to look at how to build tools using data and technology to support people making investment decisions for communities”.

From Stanford, she returned to Wellington where Impact Lab had been established, in 2018, by her father, its chairman, and several social-data experts intent on making charitable donations work, informed both by facts and human stories.

Her father, she says, “had spent a lot of time in government trying to understand how to maximise investment in charities to improve lives”. Others helping to establish Impact Lab were directors Emily Mason, who came from a career in public service, and philanthropist Fran Wyborn “who spent three decades giving money away and wanted to make a difference”. English joined to concentrate on using data tocreate a reliable tool to measure the impact of charitable aid to help philanthropists and charities in their decision-making.

English says Impact Lab doesn’t have the answers. “We connect the information so decision-makers can make decisions. Organisations want to validate what they are doing and make a difference and learn and improve.” So, how do charities find the resources from their everyday budget to invest in understanding impacts?

“We understand that can be difficult, so we work with charities to identity funders that may be able to support the work.”She also acknowledges that New Zealanders making donations can be irritated if they think donated money is notbeing applied directly to a problem, but says that is not a deterrent to a small, focused charity looking to Impact Lab for help,simply because the results serve to increase their effectiveness.

Impact Lab works with large organisations such as Barnardos, Auckland City Mission and Cure Kids as well as smaller ones such as Project Prima Volta, an opera-based youth development in Hawke’s Bay, and Te Whakaora Tangata, a whānau restoration programme operating in South Auckland and the Far North.

English says funders and charities want to maximise their impact across housing, youth development, education and training, financial well-being, the arts, sports, health and disability. Key funder partners include trust company Perpetual Guardian, Pasifika Futures (the Whānau Ora commissioning agency for Pacific families) and the South Island’s largest philanthropic funder, the Rātā Foundation.

She says Impact Lab has been working with Pasifika Futures over the past 18 months to develop a way to measure the social impact of flexible family-driven support for more than 10,000 Pacific families.

It has also worked with the Rātā Foundation and 15 Canterbury organisations to understand and articulate the results of their work with young children. In addition, Impact Lab has worked with well-being charities, measuring the effects of unmanageable debt across other aspects of families’ lives.

Family-centred approach

Impact Lab has found, in the light of an obvious push for Māori self-determination in health and social areas, that it is hard to make an across-the-board evaluation of the impact of different cultural groups involved in charitable work.

“We recognise,” says English, “that for each service provider and the people they are serving, their ways of doing things internally and their service-delivery models are unique.”

Identifying features common to individual groups, though, makes it “much easier to
compare against what global evidence states as being best practice”.

She says data shows there are different elements that seem to be more common in the approach of groups such as Pasifika and Māori providers. These include a family/whānau-centred approach that acknowledges “that for a number of cultures, collectivism is what drives behaviour and interactions”. She says evidence indicates a family-centred approach, especially where children are concerned, “can create more systemic change”.

Other aspects common to diverse cultural groups include an understanding of the importance of a relationship of trust, shown by research to make it easier for people to look for help, voice their issues and stick to a path. Such groups can also focus on driving self-determination, “which gives the user of the service more authority within the intervention process”. As well, data shows there is more likely to be “an embedding” of cultural practices, tradition, imagery and language into the design and delivery of services so that people see no barrier to asking for help and are more likely to progress to a good outcome.

English reports there are a lot of small-scale donors in this country, ranging up to large ones who form foundations, such as Wyborn’s Due Drop, to target what they give. She believes younger donors, the children of the baby boomers, increasingly want to know where to give. “We’re at the start of that. There’s a lot of wealth from that generation going to the next generation, and it’s fair to say there’s a belief that it can be handled better. Look at housing and the homeless. People are falling through the gaps. How can we do better?”

She lauds the small team she works with and those she works for. They are inspiring and their dedication is extraordinary, she says. Take the people running Te Whakaora Tangata, “who moved into their office the day of the lockdown to continue dealing day and night with family problems, turning up at 4am with clients, compassionate, calm and supportive. That’s really motivating. People doing that sort of work deserve the best tools and the funders deserve the best tools.”

Global need

The intention is for Impact Lab to eventually expand internationally. English saw a global need while she worked and studied out of the country, but she also sees the comparative lack of available data. “We want to expand internationally, but we have to solve the data challenges. We’ve got to get it right here first. Maybe in a couple of years. We’re learning a lot.

“Bringing together diverse ways of thinking can be challenging, but we are finding that the best learning takes place in the exchange of ideas – within our team and with our customers.”

Even if data is not perfect, she says, it can be useful. “The great thing about data is we can say: do we believe this? What is missing? That debate can inform what we know. That is my life’s work and I want to be doing it for as long as people find it helpful.”

And after a day’s work? “I think about it all the time, but I do play in a ukulele orchestra in Newtown.” English, a highly accomplished pianist, says, “A friend gave me a ukulele when I left New Zealand. I wanted a quiet instrument to travel – it wasn’t the ideal instrument, but it can make songs feel happy. It can make people smile.”

Going to the home of the little boy with autism taught her about that kind of connection, because she left all expectations at the door “and we’d play whatever he wanted to play.That little boy is going to school and getting to his teenage years. He’s doing really well. He taught me a lot and gave me the privilege of connecting to his world.” L

Resulting good

An agency that operates child abuse-prevention services for high-risk families in Christchurch was eager to have Impact Lab calculate its social value.

Family Help Trust is one of the 15 Canterbury organisations working with the South Island’s largest philanthropic funder, Rātā Foundation. With Rātā’s backing, Impact Lab ascertained the social return on the investment in the trust by both government and philanthropic sectors. The primary purpose of the trust’s services is to break the cycle of disadvantage for New Zealand children. The not-for-profit’s director of research and development, Libby Robins, says Family Help Trust “is a strongly evidence-based agency and has initiated a number of external valuations and other reports, all of which have had highly positive results. It made complete sense to undertake the Impact Lab process.”

The March 2021 report on Family Help Trust found that from July 2018 to June 2019, every dollar invested in the agency resulted in $13.90 in social return on investment to New Zealand.

Robins says Family Help Trust uses professionally trained, experienced and registered social workers to visit complex families at home and provide a practical, comprehensive service after the birth of a new infant. Help can continue until the youngest child goes to school.

“These are families with intergenerational difficulties and with maternal backgrounds that invariably include periods with children in state care. Such families need commitment, understanding and resilience from social workers, essential qualities to engender respect and build trust. These are the foundations of the relationships that vulnerable families need, with someone prepared to battle on their behalf.”

Robins recalls the case of a troubled solo mother, N (her name has been withheld), and her three children. Family Help Trust began working with the young family in 2016.

“When social worker Cath began working with the mother, she was an intravenous drug user and experiencing serious domestic violence from her partner. The father of two of her children was a gang member. She had minimal community or family support and was living on state support but managing moderately well. At intake, Oranga Tamariki had concerns about the safety of her children and as a consequence was involved at a serious level.

“Over the five years, with Cath alongside her, she has made significant changes in her life. She has now realised what domestic violence was doing to her and the children and that the witnessing of violence took a significant toll on their emotional well-being.

“She has now left the relationship permanently and started on the methadone programme. Although there are occasional slip-ups with her other substance use, she is taking more steps forward than back. She is off intravenous drugs and Ritalin, although she still has other struggles around synthetics.

“N has started her sensitive claim for sexual abuse as a child, which is an extremely big step for this mother. She has had her driving licence reinstated and has worked hard to tidy up her rental property. Her lawns are now regularly mowed and kept tidy and other yard-tidiness goals are a work in progress. Importantly, she is determined to ensure that her parenting is effective and that her children are safe. She has a good understanding of how her behaviour can impact negatively on the children.

“The children are doing very well at school and have other supports wrapped around them. Our target child, the youngest, is enrolled with a GP and regularly attends preschool from which he gets a lot of enjoyment and makes friends.

“Graduating from Family Help Trust’s care in a few months, N accepted a taonga pounamu to symbolise the journey and the progress her whānau has made.

“An extremely insightful comment has recently come from one of the children, who summed it up by saying: ‘Now I know that every night Mum will cook dinner for us and we do not need to worry about what we will eat.'”

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